What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self?

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about these children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries. None of these reasons are self-interested, but the final decision made by the company may be more self-interested than altruistic or even necessary.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described and this passes along throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to, without expressing directly, that likely account for a large portion of the reason for us to do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

An Idea of Inner Moral Views

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of fortune.”

 

Seneca seems to be suggesting that we can turn inward and recognize a sort of moral philosophy entirely introspectively. What is good and what we should do can be reasoned on our own, without requiring the input of other people and society. Individually, Seneca suggests, moral ethics, values, and a good life are possible.

 

The views that Seneca puts forward remind me an idea I have had for a while. The idea is that we should individually live in a way that embraces free will. We should live as though what we are going to do will shape the world in a meaningful way and deliver us to the future we want. But when we look at society, we should approach others as if they do not have free will and are limited by their experiences and surroundings in what they can truly accomplish. This pushes us to do our best and achieve great things, but without putting us in a place where we feel better than others and where we don’t put people down because they did not manage to achieve the same level of success as us. In a similar way, we should live our lives believing that we can develop our independent moral values and structures and be a good person without relying on others to tell us we are good, but when we look out at society we should try to work with other people to develop a clear definition and picture of what we think is good, moral, and just. We should view society as operating as though each person is dependent on others and incapable of individually changing the world without collective action. I’m still working through these two contradictory views of self versus world, and while they conflict, they seem to be able to create a narrative that is functional for us.

 

I feel that Seneca’s quote argues for deontological ethics, the idea that we have a duty to do things that are good entirely on their own. I usually take a more teleological view of ethics, which can be defined more as a form of ends justify the means type ethics. I see a deontological view of ethics as being easier to stand on its own without need of justification where teleological ethics is more utilitarian and consequentialist, holding that are actions cannot be deemed to be good solely based on whether we feel they are right, but are tied in some way to the fortune of the outcome that they produce.

 

Perhaps we should live as though our moral philosophy is deontological, telling ourselves that we are going to adopt a set of beliefs and habits that are morally good on their own, simply for their own sake. But we should in reality be living a more teleologial life. We should think about the consequences of going to the gym, of being nice to others, and of making smart donations to Givewell.org recommended charities. We can put on a deontological face, but be almost entirely teleological behind the mask, doing the best to maximize the good we actually achieve while telling others that we engage in good actions simply because the actions are good all on their own. This is again the kind of contradictory split I mentioned above, viewing how we should act in one light, and viewing the way we think about society in an entirely different light. I know it doesn’t make sense to combine and put together into a larger view, but for me it does create a situation where my thoughts and actions align in a way that makes me more empathetic to society and more responsible for my own decisions.

You Are Not Just Yourself

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed,” Seneca wrote in a letter saved in the book Letters From a Stoic, “the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character when the world at large assaults it!”

The way we think about ourselves is that we are conscious actors in control of our behaviors, beliefs, worldviews, and actions. Who we are and what we do is under our control. We decide if we want to engage with people, shut ourselves in our room and read all day, be nice to strangers, gossip about our co-workers, and eat at Taco Bell. The reality however, is that much of who we are and what we do is influenced by the people and situations around us. I was recently listening to Rob Reid’s podcast, After On, and his guest described a study looking at the neighbors of people who win new cars as prizes. The number of people who purchase a new car within a short time period after their neighbor wins a car is larger than you would expect just by chance. People seem to be changing their car buying habits when their neighbor gets lucky and wins a new car.

We are never the version of ourselves that is in control of our decisions and behaviors. How we think about the world and what we see when we look at ourselves, the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in is influenced by the people around us. As Seneca describes, our friends and neighbors can make us feel certain ways, even if we never wanted to feel the way they make us feel. Situations that seem meaningless, like a neighbor buying a new car, can change the way we feel about ourselves.

This idea can be liberating in the sense that we don’t have to believe that we are fully in control of everything. We don’t have to believe that we operate as a completely independent and objective CEO, rationally making perfect decisions about everything. We can take some pressure off of ourselves.

At the same time, this idea can be frustrating. It says that no matter how much you try, things are going to influence you whether you want them to or not. It means that you may be out of luck if you try to change your behavior or try to see the world in a new way. You may have too many forces pushing on you for you to really get outside of the situation that you find yourself in.

Seneca continues, “You should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” The advice Seneca gives as a reaction to our susceptibility to be influenced so heavily by the people and world around ourselves is to build to our self-awareness. Reflect deeply on how we act and behave and think about the ways we wish to act and behave. Find people who can be mentors and guides in living the life you think is meaningful, and then turn around and do what you can to help others, because you will learn more by helping others than just by doing. Recognize that you don’t have it all figured out on your own, and that you won’t always see everything happening around you, but try to build your awareness and try to focus on continual improvement. Not in a flashy way, but in a confident way that is always available for those wish to tap into it.

To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Advice from Isocrates

In Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday includes a quote from a teacher in Athens named Isocrates around 374 B.C. who wrote a letter to a young man who had recently lost his father. Holiday includes several lines and pieces of advice from Isocrates, and one that stood out to me when reading Holiday’s book is the following, “Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves.”

 

Yesterday evening I attended a community group with my wife, and the ice breaker to start off was, “what is something you don’t often approach with an eternal perspective that you should.” I chose a light answer of traffic and other drivers who annoy us while driving, but others said things like career choices, money decisions, and other important decisions that can weigh us down and make our lives stressful. The quote from Isocrates reminds me of the ice breaker from last night in the sense that we should be more thoughtful yet deliberate in our actions. Thinking with an eternal perspective means to think about the meaning and value of a choice or decision today relative to the entire arc of humanity. It requires introspection, being honest about your choices, and trying to think not just about yourself but about those around you who will also be impacted by your decision. This is exactly what Isocrates was encouraging for the young man in his letter.

 

The advice from Isocrates contained another element beyond careful and honest consideration of our choices. To be prompt in carrying out our resolves requires that we be firm in the decisions we make and deliberate in our actions to realize our decisions. I have seen in myself a thousand instances where I have made a decision to follow a course of action, only to be slow in starting on the path I decided would travel. Inevitably, the longer I delay action and the slower I am to take the steps that I decided I would take, the more likely it is that my decision is forgotten and that I do nothing. Whether it is cleaning my garage, starting a new club to read academic journal articles, or double checking our finances to set up a surprise date night with my wife, I am often slow to do what I told myself I wanted to do, and frequently I don’t carry out the great plans in my head. The advice from Isocrates is very practical for our daily lives. Slow down our judgement and reactionary tendencies, but once a decision has been made, put full and deliberate efforts forward to bring those decisions to life.

Automatic Polarization

I am a Masters in Public Administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I am constantly thinking about politics in terms of how systems operate and what forces shape the decisions being made. I am interested in the decisions themselves, but I find the forces and factors that shape how we arrive at those decisions interesting and equally important. Being able to take a deeper look beyond the headlines and beyond the reactions to policy helps us see something important about how we as a society have come together as a group to attempt to solve complex and challenging problems.

 

In their book, Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which racial attitudes and biases impacted the decisions our country made during the 2008 election and in the first few years following President Obama’s election. Their argument throughout their book is that the election split the nation along racial lines, with forces that operated below the surface and beyond many people’s conscious thought, driving behaviors. In the time following the election, Tesler and Sears write, “any issue Obama takes a public stance on might soon become polarized according to racial predispositions.” What the authors found from the data they reviewed is that the issues that President Obama openly endorsed or opposed became split along party lines in public opinion across the country. What we were split over however, was not the policy or the particular approach that the President took, but rather who the President was. During the eight years that President Obama served, one of the key drivers of this split was his race, operating in a way that had not been seen in our politics for quite some time.

 

When people openly embraced a strategy of non-cooperation and a public image of fighting against President Obama at every step, an atmosphere developed that was toxic and dangerous for our country. Policy and analysis fell behind tribalism, and our country’s problem with political polarization worsened, becoming a problem not just between conservative and liberal,  but a problem between races. Until the 2016 election the racial dynamics were shrouded behind phrases and ideas that appeared race neutral. Tesler and Sears do a great job cutting behind the veil to see the influence of race on public opinion by studying changes in public opinion with demographic date following the election of President Obama.

 

What worries me today is that we elected President Trump after he openly embraced racist stances and created an atmosphere that fostered racial divisions. He embodied a reaction more than a policy or party. What many have said, I think very correctly, is that President Trump is more of a backlash against a black president than anything else. In this sense, the polarization over race that began under President Obama has been heightened and maintained after his term. We have continued to see a split where anything publicly stated by President Trump is vehemently opposed by the Democrats who have come to stand for racial equality and the Republicans who have come to embrace ideas of whiteness. To move beyond this stage in politics requires a recognition of how our innate senses of tribalism have split us in our thoughts of otherness. We must recognize when we are acting on tribalism and when we are truly thinking more deeply about our policy stances.

 

Most people do not think deeply about a specific policy, but fall back on a few generalizations that I believe are easily opened to hidden motives that allow for tribal influence. Personal responsibility, work ethic, and deservingness are vague and hard to pin down, which allows for tribalism and implicit bias to shape our opinions. Understanding how those factors can be hijacked and controlled by racial predispositions is key if we want to think more deeply and move beyond our current polarization.

Remembering the Decisions That Made Our World

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at the current situation of minority groups in the US relative to white people and honestly assesses the history that lead to our current moment. Our country focuses on personal responsibility, hard work, and overcoming obstacles, but we fail to recognize we as a society have created many of the obstacles that people from certain minority groups face. Not only do we forget the obstacles that we created, we seem to be unable to understand how limiting, painful, and exclusionary our past decisions were for so many Americans. Coats calls the world we live in when we forget about our past decisions and assume than anyone can be industrious and achieve the same level of success The Dream.

In his book Coats writes, “The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of The Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down her in the world.”

When we do not acknowledge the true cost of slavery, of discriminatory segregation, or the true cost of our stereotyping we fail to see the impact that our choices and decisions have on the lives of so many black people. At the founding of our nation white people reached success and economic prosperity through the forced labor of human beings and creating excuses for their Dream by labeling black people as inferior savages. A war was fought to end the practice of owning another human being, but coming out of that war was the idea that black people were still below white people. Stereotypes grew to suggest that biological differences explained a white superiority and black inferiority across the country, limiting the opportunities for black people to participate in society and build financial bases for themselves and their families. Economic segregation was also at play when restrictive housing policies limited where black people could live, creating ghettos and only allowing black people to settle in isolated areas. At the same time, white people moved outward, buying expensive land and building expensive homes that would become valuable assets appreciating in price overtime. The black people who were economically segregated could not purchase such valuable land and were denied a chance to build wealth through home equity.

Coats calls the world of white people The Dream because this history is lost for so many. It is easy to look at poor black people today and assume that is their personal choices that lead to their current lifestyles and their challenges in building wealth and achieving legal and social parity with white people. When we begin to look at how the situation of today was shaped by the decisions of yesterday, the Dream begins to crumble. We see that restrictive housing practices forced black people into communities built in less valuable and more vulnerable land, making natural disasters like hurricanes more costly to black people than white people who live in houses and communities built for them years ago on more valuable land in higher and safer areas. Looking at our decisions helps us to also see the way that wealth has persisted among white families through smart financial decisions, but decisions and opportunities that were afforded to them at the exclusion of black people.

To have a better understanding of our racial tensions today we must understand the decisions that created and supported two different worlds for white and black people. White people were able to create a safe and comfortable world for themselves, while the world of black people was held back and limited. We cannot honestly discuss the challenges of implicit bias, of unintentional discrimination, or of cultural differences between white and black people if we cannot understand the choices of those who came before us and how they shaped their futures. When we honestly assess the ways in which we legally or culturally advantaged whites and white wealth building while excluding black people, we can begin to discuss what can and should be done to reduce discrimination and racial tension today.